Remembering The Children Ireland Sacrificed
Wherever one goes in Ireland, a long history of violence and suffering intrudes, sometimes directly, more often subliminally, and it never retreats. I know it well: my entire neighborhood is a cemetery. Every day as I go about my errands, I tread upon the bones of four thousand Irish and English Royalists whose blood was shed by other men.
But I’m not unique.
The spirit of cruelty is more than a historical motif in Ireland; it’s inscribed in the island’s rocks and hills, in its weather, in its soil; it’s part of the very terroir. The skeletons get to you at every turn.
In 1649, Republican soldiers loyal to Oliver Cromwell conducted a gruesome massacre in view of my doorstep. The famous Bloody Fields of the battle of Rathmines greet me every morning as I leave the house. The area is unrecognizable as a battlefield today, but I always notice a subliminal presence, a peripheral awareness of the souls lost during one excruciatingly violent day.
Occasionally, the skeletons rise to inconvenience us. In 1975, two children playing at the decommissioned St Mary’s Home for Unmarried Mothers in Tuam, Galway, operated by the Bon Secours Sisters, fell into an underground structure and discovered infant skeletons. There would be no headlines, no television documentaries, no warbling politicians, only whispers. Local residents erected a small grotto on the site and the matter was largely forgotten, in keeping with our custom of never knowing what we know.
St Mary’s Home became news only in 2014, when local historian Catherine Corless sought records kept by the former Catholic orphanage. She found 794 death certificates but only two burial records and no baptismal certificates.
Further research, including test excavations, uncovered what everyone knew we’d find: nearly 800 little skeletons that the good sisters had, for the better part of a century, been dumping into a septic tank. Unbaptized babies were not recognized as human beings, so their remains could be treated as common biological waste, much like the nuns’ shit that flowed into the same underground cesspool. That’s precisely why they weren’t baptized; a proper Christian burial costs money.
Naturally, we’re all shocked. Galway Archbishop Michael Neary claimed to be “deeply shocked and horrified.” When former Taoiseach Enda Kenny was asked if he was shocked, he answered, “Absolutely … and to think you pass by the location on so many occasions over the years.” The Mother and Baby Homes Commission of Investigation wrote in its press release that it, too, was “shocked by this discovery.” Even today, after all that’s been revealed, we’re shocked. Yet there’s abundant proof that the government was intimately involved throughout the entire fiasco of post-independence child abuse and eugenic tinkering.
Secrets that keep themselves
The Galway discovery remained an open secret for eighteen years. No one would look into it until the skeletons rose again — in 1993 — this time in a different community, when the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity sold a tract of land in High Park, Dublin, belonging to a Magdalene asylum that they operated. When the new owner began renovating the property, workers discovered a mass grave containing the remains of 155 women, children, and infants of whom 22 still can’t be identified. Only 74 of the deaths had been registered.
The skeletons were exhumed, cremated, and buried in a cemetery, again anonymously in a mass grave. A ledger found at the site listed several of the nuns’ clients. We had our first tangible proof that the State was deeply involved despite its repeated denials. For most of the 20th Century, the girls held there had been washing laundry for the President of Ireland’s official residence, the Ministries of Justice, Agriculture, and Fisheries, and the Irish Bus and Rail companies .
But the press said little, the government said nothing, and the good people of Ireland went about their business as if nothing had happened. No one would say openly that these discoveries signify a pervasive culture of crime and neglect, although we all know it. We absolve ourselves and each other of sins we don’t even admit having committed. The most durable lies are ‘the secrets that keep themselves’, because when everyone is guilty, everyone is invested in keeping them, as Shaw slyly noted .
Later, a government board of inquiry called the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse (CICA), better known as the Ryan Commission, would confirm that the Department of Education had facilitated abuse and neglect in the industrial schools. Numerous other government departments knowingly availed of services provided by forced child laborers . Even more disturbingly, girls held in the industrial schools were routinely transferred directly to Magdalene asylums to perform unpaid labor when they turned sixteen. Both the courts and the Department of Social Protection delivered thousands of children to the schools and laundries without due process of law .
Still, we feign ignorance and surprise. It’s always so very shocking. We insist that we can’t be the sort of people who would commit such crimes or even tolerate them. And so the skeletons emerge only occasionally, by accident: Catholic orders eager to cash in on Ireland’s property bubble earned €667 million in tax-free deals between 1999 and 2009 by selling land.
Inevitably, more graves were found, more little skeletons unearthed, and more ledgers discovered, exposing the criminal theocracy that ruled the Free State and Republic from Independence until the 1990s.
There’s been no survey of Church grounds and there won’t be. We don’t go digging at the mother and baby homes, the Magdalene asylums, the industrial schools, or the psychiatric hospitals because we know what we’ll find: hundreds of thousands of skeletons, most of them very small and delicate, that can’t be explained without reference to widespread crimes against humanity.
Our own worst enemy
As the 20th Century dawned, approximately 14,000 Irish children could be found in residential institutions at any moment . With a population of around 600,000 youngsters fourteen and under, that amounts to 2.33 per cent . By combining that information with the national infant mortality rate of the day, we can estimate that a baby born in Ireland stood, on average, a ten per cent chance of either dying before their first birthday, or being confined in an industrial school or orphanage before reaching their middle teens . But ‘on average’ is misleading: the child of a worker was seventeen times more likely to be caught up in an institution than the child of a professional .
Death statistics follow the same pattern: the infant and child mortality rate among professionals was below five per cent, but among unskilled workers and the poor it was 34.7 per cent . If we separate and combine the mortality and incarceration rates for children of the working classes and the poor, we approach an unthinkable number: fifty per cent. Therefore, it’s wrong to say that Ireland sought to maximize infant and child mortality. Upper caste citizens would never have tolerated watching thirty-five per cent of their babies die in their first year, and another fifteen or twenty per cent marched off to industrial schools. Rather, it’s correct to say that the Irish people optimized infant mortality to be rid of an unwelcome population. The effect was calibrated.
In addition to the 14,000 young people trapped in the orphanages, industrial schools, and Magdalene asylums, a steady population of around 20,000 adults languished in psychiatric hospitals, most of them committed involuntarily. The goal was to impound older residents who would not, or could not, conform — to keep them tightly regulated behind high walls lest they breed and multiply and thus undermine the Celtic-Catholic utopia conceived by the nation’s revolutionary leaders.
With its vast residential care network, 20th Century Ireland achieved the second-highest rate of extrajudicial confinement in Europe, behind only Nazi Germany. The Irish detention complex outpaced even the Soviet gulag system, which reached its maximum capacity briefly in 1950 and held 2.49 million inmates that year . The population was 182 million at the time. That yields a brief, peak incarceration rate of 1.37 per cent for the Soviets . The Irish Republic confined a minimum of 1.89 per cent of its population steadily from 1920 until 1970. In further contrast to the Soviet Union, the majority of Irish victims were children.
This wasn’t done to the Irish; it was done by the Irish. And it certainly was no accident; a society doesn’t accidentally confine two per cent of its entire population within a network of internment facilities. It doesn’t accidentally achieve the highest rate of infant mortality in Western Europe and cling to that disgraceful distinction for six decades. It doesn’t accidentally kill or imprison nearly half of all children born to the poor. Those were choices, and there must have been a coherent purpose behind them. There has got to be a hard kernel of truth that we can uncover. What, exactly, are we looking at?
Unauthorized breeding among undesirable castes was understood as a menace. Ireland’s industrial schools, orphanages, Magdalene asylums, and psychiatric hospitals, and its public health polices hostile to poor women and their infants, were, quite simply, the essential mechanisms of a national eugenics program.
There is no other rational explanation. There is no other way to account for the facts. The craving for ideological conformity and ethnic purity among those who conceived and led the Free State and the Republic is our monster. Celebrated patriots like Pádraig Pearse, Eoin MacNeill, Michael Collins, and Éamon de Valera, and their many followers and enablers, believed in a distinct Irish race, which, predictably, modern research has proved fictitious. The several “tribes” of the British Isles — Picts, Celts, Normans, Anglo Saxons — are genetically indistinguishable. We’re all essentially British .
Modern Ireland encouraged extravagant rates of infant mortality among the underclass as a laissez-faire form of euthanasia, and sequestered unwelcome adults as a virtual form of sterilization, in quest of Gaelic-Catholic purity. The Church performed the State’s dirty work: it operated the nation’s schools, health-care facilities, and asylums through which it would cleanse the breeding pool of unmarried mothers, juvenile delinquents, cripples, paupers, petty criminals, eccentrics, and political nay-sayers. Dublin Archbishop John Charles McQuaid and Fianna Fáil leader Éamon de Valera, working together as co-sovereigns for half a century, conceived the deadly theocracy that became the Irish Free State and Republic.
The Children’s Act of 1942, co-written by then Education Minister de Valera and Archbishop McQuaid, expanded the industrial school system by increasing their budgets and further relaxing admissions criteria: it eliminated the minimum age for inmates, which had been six years, permitting vulnerable, young families to be dissolved and very small children, even toddlers, to be removed and institutionalized. This sadistic piece of legislation also made it illegal for single fathers to care for their children regardless of their income or fitness to do so, a cynical provision meant to further increase the inmate pool. No mother at home meant, automatically, that no family existed, and the so-called ‘cruelty men’ would leap into action.
And yet, this vast network of crime and abuse was effectively hidden by a deluge of Emerald-Isle hogwash, of penny whistles and Aran jumpers and rivers of green beer. Battalions of clergy, entertainers, authors, and teachers would infiltrate local parish houses, convents, monasteries, Catholic schools, and Catholic fraternal organizations, plus university lecture halls, bookshops, and bars, serving as cultural ambassadors and evangelists preaching the Holy Gospel of Irish identity to the world. The story of a devoutly religious folk demanding autonomy and a cultural revival — their dignity in a word — proved so seductive that no one thought to question its human costs.
This was a collective choice. The Church is a native institution. Irish priests and Irish monks worked boys without pay in the industrial schools, and beat them, and raped them, and sent them into the world with no marketable skills. Irish nuns snatched newborns from incarcerated single mothers and arranged their adoptions, and worked young women in the Magdalene laundries without pay, and fed them gruel, and procured them for heterosexual priests. Irish mothers and Irish fathers surrendered their delinquent boys and promiscuous girls to the Church’s grim work houses and farms. Irish families used the Lunacy and Mental Health Acts to dispose of their elderly parents, disagreeable spouses, or rival siblings in inheritance disputes. Irish social workers and Irish cruelty men swept thousands of destitute people and dysfunctional families into the system. Irish police officers and Irish judges collaborated in the practice of incarcerating people guilty of nothing, covered up or ignored evidence of institutional crime and neglect, destroyed records, and suppressed criminal complaints. Irish doctors and Irish nurses withheld life-saving treatment from poor infants. Irish bishops and Irish politicians established and maintained a vast institutional network of intimidation and control devoted to social cleansing.
What we must confront, however reluctantly, is the Irishness of it all.
 Little Museum of Dublin, permanent collection
 George Bernard Shaw: “The Thing Happens, A.D. 2170;” Back to Methuselah; London, 1921
 Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse (CICA) Investigation Committee Report, Vol. IV, Ch. 1
 Report of the Inter-Departmental Committee to Establish the Facts of State Involvement with the Magdalene Laundries, Part III, Chs. 10, 11
 Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse (CICA) Investigation Committee Report, Vol. I
 Ireland Central Statistics Office; Census, 1901
 Eoin O’Sullivan and Ian O’Donnell: Coercive Confinement in Post-Independence Ireland: Patients, Prisoners, and Penitents; Manchester, 2012
 Ireland: Society and Economy 1870–1914; University College, Cork
 Cormac Ó Gráda: “Infant and Child Mortality in Dublin a Century Ago;” University College Dublin, 2002
 David Hosford, et al.: Gulag: Soviet Prison Camps and Their Legacy; Cambridge, 2006
 Galena Selegen: Report on the Recent Population Census in the Soviet Union; Population Investigation Committee; London, 1960
 Bryan Sykes; Blood of the Isles, London, 2007